Zen and the Art of Freediving

Zen and the Art of Freediving

As part of enacting my life philosophy of trying as much as possible, engaging in exploration, and pushing the limits of what I’m comfortable with, towards the end of 2012 I spent two idyllic months on the tropical island of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. ‘Hang on’, you might be thinking… Admittedly this in itself does not sound particularly challenging, especially when you consider I know several people who think the Gili Islands are hands down the best place on the planet, but in fact I was there was to explore the fascinating world of freediving.

Now I defy any non-freediver to watch a You Tube video of William Trubridge elegantly descending to 101 metres below the surface of the sea on a single breath, and not be left with a gaping wide mouth and the thought ‘how the frick is that even possible?!’. After I saw this I just knew I had to try it for myself.

Freediving is essentially the art of holding your breath. Within the sport this is then performed either diving as deep as possible, swimming horizontally underwater, or by floating face down in a pool for as long as possible. For those interested in meditation, mindfulness, and the workings of the mind, to study and practice freediving is absolutely fascinating and I probably learnt as much about the tendencies of the mind in those two months as I had done in years of meditation.

Now if you can be bothered, try holding your breath now. What’s the first thing that happens? Perhaps unsurprisingly you really really want to breath again! This is known as the urge to breath, and it is strong. Once you’ve learnt the basic physiology of breathholding it becomes apparent that all you need to do to freedive is completely ignore this instinctive response. Easy hey?!

Despite the fact that you may feel like you will die if you don’t breathe, or drown if you happen to be submerged in water, it is perfectly safe to basically ignore this physiological reaction. The goal of freediving is to master your psychological response to it, through repitition and familiarity, developing the facility to choose how you react to what can be quite an extreme sensation. Essentially this is the aim when developing mindfulness too, only the intensity of holding your breath underwater offers a more initially confrontational and wetter challenge than sitting on your meditation cushion.

It is an amazingly intense examination of the way the mind responds to stress. What I experienced, particularly at the outset, was that as soon as you put your head under water there is resistance. Doubt and anxiety set in and it is hard to relax and be mindful when you have deprived yourself of oxygen. Before long every cell in your body is screaming for the relief of some air, sweet air. I ended up seeing, as though through a microscope, how the mind is always, to a greater or lesser degree, resistant to the present moment.

In our daily lives this may be manifest in profound ways from time to time, but I believe that for most of us it is present even in at least a subtle way all of the time. I think that this influences much of our behaviour, from the food we eat to the television we watch and the internet we binge on. In freediving this resistance to how things are ‘right now’ is felt more acutely because a powerful survival instinct is triggered when we hold our breath.

As you hold your breath you pass through different stages; if you can make it past the initial urge to breathe, diaphragm contractions follow which can be quite disconcerting, but again this can be safely worked with as you develop your capacity to mindfully endure the experience (at first most people won’t be able to hold their breaths for long enough for it to become dangerous). The more relaxed and practiced you become with freediving the later these responses kick in and the more your ability to deal with them improves.

Freediving is mindfulness in action. As well as using physical exercises to increase physiological fitness and lung capacity, it shares much with the meditative practices in the way a freediver strengthens the mind’s ability to respond equanimously to the subjective experience of holding the breath. Practice sessions holding the breath underwater are extreme versions of sitting on the cushion.

What I discovered shocked and amazed me. In my longest underwater breath hold my relaxation exercises and years of meditation really paid off; I entered a quiet, still and blissfully peaceful world where time did not exist. I floated face down in the pool in a calm I’d rarely experienced before. Later on the contractions started and eventually as the urge to breathe grew more intense I relented, lifting my head above the water and into the sunlight, gasping for air. I had no idea how long I’d been under but assumed it was a couple of minutes. My time was four minutes and fifteen seconds!

This was a real eye opener for me and I believe it tells us much about the human condition, as well as hinting at the untapped potential of our minds and by extension, our lives. What is clear is the potential power of the mind to be able to genuinely choose how to respond to its experience, no matter how extreme this may seem. It tells us that as humans we have a latent and extraordinary ability to achieve what we think should not be possible. It says that we do not have to be defeated by the self-sabotaging tendencies of the mind, and that with discipline and training every single one of us can do great things. Finally, it demonstrates the power of mindfulness as a practice of genuine transformation.

Is It Too Risky to Fall in Love?

Falling in love is like being high as a kite for days or weeks on end. In fact in this way you could say being with the one you love is a bit like smoking crack, and just as addictive. In love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.

For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the potential consequences of a love gone wrong are so devastingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed. People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heart break are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?

Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems. It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.

Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to rejection, to not being good enough. Falling in love makes us vulnerable and invites the possibility that to the one we love we are unloveable. Love is a land inhabited by demons and devils. Only the brave would dare to tread here.

At least you’d think so, but in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another. Only if we have been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.

Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts. It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.

It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden. However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.

Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone. But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.

Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love will hurt, but slowly love can heal.

I Drink Therefore I Am?: Grappling With Alcohol and Mindful Living

Alcohol. That most delicious, horrid, elixir, poison, potion of passion, liquid of love, brew of bliss and drink of depression. How to relate to this curious drug? It depends who you ask – I know some people extremely averse to drinking while others would say you’d be crazy not to, though I’m fairly sure the majority would be comprised of the latter. I’ve been thinking about drinking a lot of late. In fact for years I’ve been torn by my conflicting feelings towards alcohol, and the nagging feeling that I could make so much more of myself if I stopped drinking grows stronger by the week.

I won’t lie, I’ve drunk much more than I should have for many years. I’ve loved being drunk and have been completely smashed so many times I couldn’t even guess how many hundreds it is. Being drunk has bestowed upon me great times, new friends, one night stands, relationships, the feeling of being alive and a mountain of magical moments. If only I could remember the names, and what they all were… It has temporarily freed me from my usual shy and reserved, introverted and self-doubting tendencies, and enabled me to live a great social life which belies the inhibiting thought patterns I spend most of my time dealing with.

But it’s not that simple. Alcohol is unpredictable. When I drink I do not know who I will be that night. Will I be the charming, witty, sociable person I quite like, or the self loathing, lonely, depressed individual I despise, trapped inside the prison of my mind? And then there’s the next day… Doubtless I don’t need to describe this.

Of course you might rightly point out that I’m talking about extremes here, that I should just drink less, or stop after a couple and go home. But again it’s not that simple. The thing with alcohol is that after a drink or two, self autonomous choice seems to vanish. The alcohol starts to think for you. Just having a couple seems boring, and all of a sudden you’d be a spoil sport for leaving your companions.

Staying out for more booze presents the allure of ‘living in the moment’, making the most of life, being spontaneous and crazy. The bank account becomes irrelevant, tomorrow’s tasks can wait, and the friends you’re meeting for dinner won’t mind too much if you don’t show up. After all, we’ve all been there.

For those of us inspired by a healthy diet, mindful living or striving to improve ourselves, and particularly for those of us with a daily meditation practice, alcohol poses extra challenges. Meditation is defeated by the solace of a second snooze, being present is replaced by getting by, the potential inherent in every moment is vanquished, long term goals are slain by short term impulses. The mind is clouded, clarity lost, energy sapped. The body craves stimulants and junk food, anxiety increases and tiredness takes hold.

Of course to the regular drinker these symptoms might seem exaggerated, but I’m struck by how much of a poison alcohol seems to become after a period of abstention, time spent on a raw food diet, or sessions with a plant medicine like ayahuasca or psilocybin.

There is however a reason – and a good reason at that – why alcohol is so popular and why to contemplate giving up alcohol seems so bonkers to most people. Where would we get our fun? Alcohol so kindly gives us the escape we crave, the sweetness and elation that so often is missing from our monotonous and dissatisfying daily lives. For a few hours we can forget our shitty jobs, stresses at home, spiritually unfulfilling culture and how long we have to wait until our next holiday.

The ritual of cracking open a bottle, or sitting back on a comfortable pub chair and taking that first sweet gulp offers a moment of satisfaction, the chink of glasses while saluting your fellow revellers a second of gratification and connection. Of course it’s a distraction, but it’s a welcome distraction that greases the wheels of social interaction while creating a space in which life is good and problems can be shared.

So how to deal with the question of whether to continue drinking or not? At my best I sense the potential that could be unlocked with the extra clarity of mind that would be available, the extra time, the physical strength, the early mornings and the weekends regained. At my most inspired I feel how much more I could create and achieve and maybe even how much more stable my mind would be. In a country where the drinking culture is so ingrained this represents a huge challenge though, and there’s a lot I’d be turning my back on. I seem attached to the euphoria, sense of connection and carefree spirit of the good times, the letting go and the comfort of drinking with friends.

Maybe there is a middle ground to be found. If so it requires a clarity of intention and strength of mind. Maybe certain situations more prone to providing a slippery slope can be avoided while other more sedate occasions can be enjoyed. But again I come back to the intuition that this needs to be all or nothing. I’ve had a long relationship with drink and I know its lessons inside out. Maybe it’s time to try a new way of living. In contemplating this I come to the realisation that the alcohol is not the root problem. If I was happy with my work and in my life I wouldn’t feel this attachment. I need to change these things. But maybe it’s more even than this. The benefits we seemingly gain from drinking – feeling more relaxed in the environment we’re in, connecting better with others – point to a deeper problem.

To greater or lesser degrees we all feel a sense of separation from those around us, and an absence of connection with the world. In other words we lack a sense of belonging. The human condition seems to necessitate this situation, and fear based patterns of thinking learnt during tricky childhoods exacerbate it’s influence. There are many ways in which this manifests but one of them is a subtle or even profound sense of not being at ease in the world, and this is felt more acutely in certain more uncomfortable situations. Alcohol is often able to dissolve the boundaries that keep us from being able to feel connected with each other and with the world we inhabit, that keep us from feeling like we are truly supposed to be here in the world at large, or what ever scenario we are in. Drinking can therefore alleviate that most fundamental malaise.

Of course there are many reasons people drink, and there are doubtless many reasons I drink. But it does strike me that many of them can be attributed to this root cause – the pervasive sense of separation. To attain the middle ground and to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, one first has to heal the disconnection that is responsible for the inability to feel at ease. This is a significant task, and a life long one for some at that.

I’m not suggesting that we should all stop drinking, and in any case ceasing to drink on it’s own will only put an end to your hangovers, not your hang ups. And of course many people have a healthy relationship with alcohol, where it is not used to self medicate, and where drinking alcohol does not lead to the inability to stop drinking and the consequent desire to get completely smashed on more and more drink, culminating in a quest to find something even stronger to take the mind somewhere more extreme, and not stopping until the body gives up and falls into that sweet, dreamless comatosed slumber.

Those of us who drink might not all operate at this extreme, though I know so many who do, and it’s a tendency in myself that used to be very strong and still lies latently inside today. Despite the euphoria and apparently social bonding affect of getting wasted with friends or strangers, I currently find it difficult to continue to justify the physical damage, the lost weekends recovering, the anxiety that ensues after use, the dampening of dreams and absence of clarity about the future, not to mention the financial outlay that goes with alcohol consumption. I desire to see what I can make of myself with out these handicaps, to see whether I really can be more creative, see goals through to fufilment, be physically stronger, mentally more stable, spiritually more steadfast, and whether I can develop a healthier relationship with life. I can’t help but think that for me, after so many years, the game is up with booze.

I’m not suggesting it will be easy, or that it will even be successful, or that this is permanent. I also have no idea how I will approach invites to the pub, continuing to go to clubs to hear music I love, boozy weddings, dates, parties and after work socials. Such is the pervasiveness of drinking in society and my dis-ease with navigating these scenarios without being at least a little tipsy.

The path winds and is not straight. People and times change. What is appropriate now may not work in the future. Aside from those working with a strong addiction to alcohol there is no need to work with absolutes and impose on ourselves a lifetime ban on drinking. To err is to be human after all, and this only sets ourselves up for failure in any case. It does however feel healthy for those of us with a passion for mindful living to explore alternative modes of being including both drinking and not drinking, learning what there is to learn from each state. Remaining as present as we can, and through being as conscious and honest with ourselves as possible we can learn to observe the motivations and effects of our actions and discover what works and what causes us problems. Hopefully we can come to a healthy arrangment with alcohol, whatever that is. After all, the human story is one of trying stuff out and of learning from our successes and mistakes. I’ve been very successful at drinking a lot over the years so for now I’m going to try something else.


You Don’t Have to Stop Your Thoughts to Meditate: 5 Tips for Rookie Meditators

I speak to a lot of people who express an interest in meditation and have tried it out for themselves briefly before giving up. And so often I hear exactly the same words: ‘Meditation is so difficult, I just can’t stop my thoughts!’ It seems that many people have tried it once, been barraged and assaulted by the sheer volume and activity of the content of the exposed monkey mind, deemed the experiment a failure and given up on the journey before it’s barely begun. There seems to be a widespread misconception regarding what meditation involves that sets people up for failure. The following are some suggestions which may help.

1) Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. In fact meditation does not even have to be about actively trying to do something at all. Of course there are many different types of medition and some do involve actively shaping the contents of your mind, but for those new to the path don’t worry about them for now.

2) Instead just try observing your thoughts. Sounds simple hey? Granted it might not be easy but the underlying aim is straightforward and it will get easier in time. Sit there, close your eyes, and let your mind do its thing. Watch, witness, observe. Do not judge, and try not to attach to your thoughts. When this happens – and it will – just come back to your breath or the sensation of ‘now’. Observe the rise and fall of your abdomen, reconnect with your body and recommence. Let your thoughts arise and fall away. Observe how they start, are present for a while and then disappear. Be aware of their transient nature.

3) Becoming attached to or lost in a thought is not in any way a failure, it is a key part of the process. As you gently come back to ‘now’ after each time you get lost, do not be annoyed. Know that you are learning the workings of the mind. With regular practice this will happen less and less often and in time you will find that by witnessing the contents of the mind in this way your mind will naturally quieten, and your thoughts will eventually ‘stop’, replaced by oceans of emptiness. And then they will start again and the practice will continue. This is the way of the path.

4) There are many ways to meditate. Go to a few different classes and find a style that suits you, or make up your own style using elements of what you’ve learnt.

5) Meditation rewards regular practice. Try and give time everyday to meditation even if it is only a few minutes. Start small and work your way up. One minute a day is better than nothing. Master that minute and try two minutes the next week, nothing wrong with that at all. Try and get up to twenty minutes or more for your eventual daily practice. Through witnessing how thoughts are formed in the stream of your awareness, in time you will find you develop a greater freedom to choose how to respond to the contents of your mind. This freedom results in greater peace of mind and you will find that at the times you need it that state of mind will become more readily available. It won’t stop life from being a journey of ups and downs but it will empower you to choose what to make of your experience as it arises.

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